A Guide to Film Photography

Are you looking for a new creative outlet that brings you closer to the craft of photography? Then film photography might just be the perfect solution for you! After picking a film camera for the first time 3 years ago, I’ve discovered that shooting on film has not only helped me fight creative burnout I was feeling with digital, but it also made me a better photographer as a whole! Film photography offers a unique tactile experience that allows you to slow down and fully appreciate the art of capturing a moment. Plus, its a great way to play with adding a vintage aesthetic to your work.

In this guide, I’ll share everything I’ve learned from shooting film photography,  from selecting the right film camera to choosing the best films for your specific style and budget. While I’m certainly not a film photography expert, I hope there’s something for everyone in this comprehensive guide to film photography!

What CamerA should I Use?

The first step of getting into film is finding the right film camera for you! This guide is going to focus specifically on SLR cameras, aka a single-lens reflex camera. This is the early version of the DSRL (or digital SLR camera which is the popular professional cameras you see used today although these are quickly being replaced by even newer mirrorless cameras). SLRs use an internal mirror system to capture photos and generally allow you to change lenses, control shutter speed, and change your aperature. These differ from your typical disposable cameras you can find at CVS and also from point-and-shoot film cameras such as the Contax T series (which is a very pricey and popular film camera you’ve probably seen on social media that uses a fixed lens and autofocus). Heads up – I will also only be discussing 35mm format film cameras below rather than medium format cameras as they are generally a better place for beginners to start! 

Now lets get into my top suggestions for SLRs for beginning film photographers! 

Beginner Film Cameras:

1. Pentax K 1000: I’m biased here since this is my camera but this film camera is well-known to be perfect for beginners in film due to its ease of use and durability. It’s low cost and simple with only 3 controls of shutter speed, aperture and focus. Plus there’s 0 electronic pieces meaning there’s very few things that can go wrong with it. The light meter (which helps determine the correct exposure settings) is the one exception as it runs on a watch battery but the camera still functions without it! In fact, mine’s been broken the entire time I have used my camera.   

2. Canon AE-1: This is one of the most popular film camera of all time. It is electronically controlled so can be especially useful for beginners as it has a shutter priority mode!  

3. Nikon F/F2: the F is known as Nikon’s first SLR and originally released in 1959, this is equally as popular camera as the 2 before it! The F2 is a little on the pricier side compared to the 2 above but known for its great quality. 

Honorable Mention: Olympus OM-1 which was also one of the top SLRs of its time and is known for being small and lightweight! 

These are all suggestions to get you started based on reaearch and my in-person experince. There are truly sooo many film cameras to choose from so these definitely aren’t your only options! 

Where should you buy your camera?  

There are a couple of places you can look for your film camera! You can look in-person at your local camera shop or online shop at Etsy, Ebay, Facebook Marketplace, and OfferUp. Also, try asking your parents, grandparents, or other friends/family members if they still have thier old film cameras. My mom happened to have hers locked away in a closet from 30 years prior which turned into my first (and still my main) film camera! 

What Film should I Use?

The second step to taking your first film photos is purchasing film! Just like kinds of film cameras, film comes in dozens of varieties and the type of film you choose can actually change the way your photos come out. Choosing film is almost like choosing a preset to edit your photos with – it can dictate the color, grain, tone, and overall “feel” of the images.  

Important Aspects of Choosing Film: 

Color vs. Black & White: Unlike on your digital camera where you can switch between black & white and color images, you must decide beforehand for film. I usually shoot in color but have done a few rolls in black & white for added artistic value. 

ISO: ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization and refers to the film’s sensitivity to light or its speed. A higher ISO value (such as an 800) means the film is more sensitive to light and can be used in lower light conditions. However, a higher ISO can also mean more grain in your resulting images (which can also be an artistic choice!). Lower ISOs are better for well-lit environments such as shooting outdoors in the sun. Whichever film ISO you pick will impact what you set your aperture and shutter speed on when shooting. I don’t often shoot in low light conditions so usually opt for a 200 or 400 ISO. 

Exposures: Most film usually comes with either 24 or 36 exposures per roll. Exposures are how many photos you can shoot per roll of film. Most film I encounter has 36 exposures per roll.

Brand: The film’s brand can have a significant impact on the overall look of the film. Choosing the brand is almost like choosing what kind of preset you would use on a digital photo during editing. Different brands use different emulsions, grain structures, color tones, and dynamic range from dark to light. In addition, price and availability varies per brand as well. I suggest playing around with different brands and their various types of films until you find the look you like best! 

A few of my favorite film options are:

Kodak Portra 400: This film is known for its natural and accurate color reproduction, as well as its ability to produce images with rich and warm skin tones. It has a fine grain structure and excellent sharpness, making it a popular choice for portraits and landscapes. Portra 400 also has a wide exposure latitude, meaning it can produce acceptable results even if the exposure is slightly off, making it a more forgiving film. This is one of the most popular films by film photographers and because of that, can be a bit pricey and is getting harder and harder to find in stock!

Kodak Gold 200: This film is known for its vivid colors and warm tones. Similar to Portra 400, it has a fine grain structure, producing sharp and detailed images. Due to its good color saturation, its a popular choice for landscapes, nature, and other outdoor scenes. It is relatively forgiving of small exposure errors. Kodak Gold has been a lot easier to get my hands on than Portra 400 so its been my go-to film choice as of late.

Kodak Tri-X 400: This is my go-to for black & white photography. This film is known for its fine grain structure and sharpness, as well as its tonal range and contrast. It produces images with a distinctive look, characterized by deep blacks and bright whites, making it a popular choice for fine art, portrait, and street photography. Tri-X 400 is also known for its versatility, as it can be used in a variety of shooting situations, including low light conditions. Overall,its a classic and highly regarded black and white film.

Where can I buy film?

Film can be bought in a variety of places! Check your local camera store to choose film in-person (this is what I like to do since I can get thier expertise on new films I want to try). If you don’t have a local store, film can also be bought online. Try looking on B&H Photo, Adorama, and Amazon to start! 

where to get it developed

After you’ve shot your first roll of film, the next step is getting it developed! The availability of places to get 35mm film developed can vary depending on your location, but here are a few options you can consider:

1. Local camera shops or photo labs: Check if there are any camera shops or photo labs in your area that offer film developing services. They may also be able to provide additional services such as scanning and printing. This is what I personally do! I have a local camera store (Nelson Photo if youre in the San Diego area!) that offers development as well as high-resolution scanning so I get my photos sent to me via DropBox! This site can help you find local camera stores if they exist in your area or just do a general Google Search.

2. Chain stores: Some larger chain stores that offer photo services, such as CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart, may still offer film developing services. While this is probably the cheapest and most convenient option, I would personally stay away from these if you can as they dont usually offer highest quality development.

3. Online services: If there isn’t a local camera store in your area, dont worry! There are plenty that you can access online. Some popular ones include The Darkroom, Indie Film Lab, and Richard’s Photo Lab just to name a few! You can mail your film to these services, and they will send back your negatives along with digital scans. There are TONS of these online services, so do youre research and choose the best one for you.

Also, just beacuse you are shooting film, doesn’t mean you have to get physical printed versions of the photos. Almost every option mentioned above will offer to scan your photos for you so you can have them in a digital version.

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All images © 2020 Kathryn Bennett. All rights reserved.